Nav: Home

Are drones disturbing marine mammals?

February 13, 2017

Marine researchers have made sure that their research drones aren't disturbing their research subjects, shows a report in Frontiers in Marine Science. And they're hoping that others will follow their example to help protect wildlife in the future.

We've all seen the videos--drones and wildlife don't always get along. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer unparalleled scientific footage and insight, but how can wildlife researchers be sure that they're not disturbing the very animals they're hoping to study?

"UAVs are becoming more and more popular both with the public and as a scientific tool and, until now, there's been little scientific information on the impact of drones in the marine environment," says Lars Bejder, who leads Murdoch University's Cetacean Research Unit in Western Australia. "It's very important to know whether these instruments have an effect on these animals."

Bejder's group and their collaborators at the Marine Bioacoustics lab of Aarhus University in Denmark specialize in whales and dolphins, both of which are particularly sensitive to human-made noise because they rely heavily on acoustics for communication, hunting, and navigation.

To ensure that their research drones were inaudible to these mammals, Dr. Fredrik Christiansen (a post-doctoral fellow in Bejder's lab and lead author of the research) and colleagues measured how well the drone sounds carried into the water. To do so, they suspended an underwater microphone one meter below the ocean's surface. Since marine mammals spend the vast majority of their time deeper in the water, Christiansen describes this as the "worst case scenario" for these mammals. The groups then flew two different types of multirotor UAVs at varied heights over the water and monitored how much noise was detectable under the surface.

Fortunately, they found that the sounds from the UAV didn't travel very well from the air into the water. Drone noise was very close to the background noise level in shallow water habitats. Furthermore, the teams also compared the recorded noise levels to the known hearing thresholds of dolphins and whales and they found that, for the majority of these mammals, drones were below these auditory thresholds.

While Christiansen's experiments are in the clear, it's important to note that terrestrial species and birds will be more exposed to both the sound and visual presence of UAVs. Researchers will need to continue performing similar studies to make sure that their UAVs are safe to use with different types of wildlife. Christiansen and his collaborators are hoping that their study will help guide the regulation of drone use in the future.

"Wildlife research is carried out under very strict permits and we hope that our research will help guide the regulators who evaluate permit applications to ensure that we understand what may or may not have an effect on these animals," explains Bejder.

All UAV research was conducted under Western Australian State research permits and with Murdoch University Animal Ethics approval.


Related Whales Articles:

Stranded whales detected from space
A new technique for analysing satellite images may help scientists detect and count stranded whales from space.
Hush, little baby: Mother right whales 'whisper' to calves
A recent study led by Syracuse University biology professor Susan Parks in Biology Letters explores whether right whale mother-calf pairs change their vocalizations to keep predators from detecting them.
Researchers use drones to weigh whales
Researchers from Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS) in Denmark and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in the US devised a way to accurately estimate the weight of free-living whales using only aerial images taken by drones.
Plastic in Britain's seals, dolphins and whales
Microplastics have been found in the guts of every marine mammal examined in a new study of animals washed up on Britain's shores.
Groups of pilot whales have their own dialects
A new study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has found that short-finned pilot whales living off the coast of Hawai'i have their own sorts of vocal dialects, a discovery that may help researchers understand the whales' complex social structure.
Humpback whales arrive in the Mediterranean to feed themselves
Although the presence of humpback whales in the Mediterranean has been considered unusual, it is known that their visits have increased in the last 150 years.
Watching whales from space
Scientists have used detailed high-resolution satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies' DigitalGlobe, to detect, count and describe four different species of whales.
Did mosasaurs hunt like killer whales?
University of Cincinnati professor Takuya Konishi examined the youngest-ever specimen of tylosaur ever found.
Beluga whales and narwhals go through menopause
Scientists have discovered that beluga whales and narwhals go through the menopause -- taking the total number of species known to experience this to five.
UB psychologist proposes whales use song as sonar
A University at Buffalo psychologist has proposed in a newly published paper that humpback whales may use song for long-range sonar.
More Whales News and Whales Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at